My Favorite Albums: #86 The Decemberists’ “Castaways and Cutouts”


14 May 2009, 4:36

There is not much I don’t like that The Decemberists have done. All of their songs reek of wonderful pretension. Their songs are all bogged down in ever increasing layers of instrumentals and vocal harmonies. Their album covers all look like book covers from those small press books you can only find in the tiniest book stores. Their narratives are wild and inventive. They have a good sense of humor, to the point where they had a guitar solo contest with Stephen Colbert. To put it more succinctly: they are a good time kind of band. So with their album “Castaways and Cutouts” we find the Decemberists setting the stage for all their music to follow.

The opener is a song called “Leslie Ann Levine” which starts with a heavy, what I believe is twelve string guitar chord progression that blends into a rolling accordion line. The song tells of a girl who died at childbirth who now roams the land with other children who have died before their time. For such an esoteric theme, the song is very musical and very enjoyable. Meloy is very good in most of his songs at making his vocals interesting to the ear. Such as here in the line regarding the parapets that swells into “Shake my rattle and bones”. I wonder if this is really the best choice for an album opener, but I suppose it does set the tone for the album as a whole. “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” is another downbeat song that relies on a dreamy vocal track to propel its lyrics to the forefront. The lyrics, which seem to deal primarily with the possibilities of one’s life, albeit in a more ornate way than most would probably encounter. It’s a song of mood, played especially during the chorus, which has a wonderful dropped vocal end with a haunting piano and/or organ line. “July! July!” is the first upbeat song the album and a good example of how a simple song about fun as a child can have imagery of drunken French Canadians, bootlegging and possibly murdering. But the song is propelled by the bouncy guitar so much, that it must be a happy tale. I especially like the backing vocal answers on the bridge for this one.

A Cautionary Song” is another example of the Decemberists ornate story telling. Taking a marine feeling, we hear how our mother goes down to the docks at night to pleasure the sailors while we sleep. This song really plays with the accordion line to invoke that naval imagery and is especially well used when the song is dotted at the end. “Odalisque” is one of my all-time favorite of their songs, simply because it blends their soft acoustic/accordion duo against a more driven organ/electric section, not to mention Meloy’s wails, later heard on “The Island” from “The Crane Wife”. Meloy’s singing of the opening lines is great especially “and when they find you odalisque/they will rend you terribly /stitch from stitch till all /your linen and limbs will fall”. Top this with lyrics like “Now what do we do/ with 10 dirty Jews?” and you have a very interesting song to the ears. “Cocoon” for me is one of the least memorable songs on the album. Although its piano line is nice and haunting, it doesn’t draw attention much to the lyrics, which are usually a highlight of their songs and the vocals only really stand out on the acapella ending lines to the verses.

Grace Cathedral Hill” is largely bolstered by the excellent and very appropriate organ line. Again, this isn’t a favorite of mine from the album, though I think Meloy really brings the imagery of the place to life with lines like “Grace Cathedral hill, all wrapped in/ bones of a setting sun, /all dust and stone and moribund.” “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an upbeat and fun number, and almost purely electric. The vocals sore and swoop from almost cockney to the rising multi-tracked choruses. And the way the accordion plays to drive the songs tempo up is wonderful. “Clementine” is almost hymn-like in quality, as nearly everything is at a minimum, but it works for the song. It’s sweet in its way and I think the vocals sound earnest enough to pull it off, though this probably the least complicated narrative wise of all the tracks.

Finally we come to “California One/ Youth and Beauty Brigade” a truly epic song. The first section is slow paced mostly made of acoustic guitar and piano. With lyrics like “And the road a-winding goes /from golden gate to roaring cliff-side /and the light is softly low as our hearts become sweetly untied /beneath the sun of California one” a lot of imagery is brought and the minimal music really makes it seem like a relaxing drive. The second section is brought in by a rising organ part and at times what sounds like whispered sentiments. This section is massive building all the Decemberists instrumental power into a call to all the misfits of the world and frankly I get a chuckle during the line “I figured I had paid my debt to society /by paying my overdue fines at the Multnomah county library”. It is a perfect album closer that really shows off what the Decemberists are all about. This is an overall great album, and though I enjoy how much more complicated things get on later albums arrangement wise, it’s nice to hear simpler Decemberists, building their enormous dream.

Favorite Track: “Odalisque”


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